Remembering Ike: Deficits and Defense

In his farewell address to the country shortly before leaving office, President Dwight D. (“Ike”) Eisenhower warned of the pernicious effects of a defense establishment that becomes too large and too powerful. He described this problem in terms of the “military-industrial complex,” the relationship between the Department of Defense, large military contractors, and their Congressional and retired military supporters. His basic warning was that unless controlled, this complex would swallow up American resources at an unacceptable, pernicious rate and actually endanger rather than reinforce national security.

The basis for Ike’s assertions regarding the effect of large defense spending on national security was his belief that the necessary underpinning of a strong national security environment was a healthy economy, and that a healthy economy in turn required a balanced budget, which out-of-control defense spending undermined.

Eisenhower’s words were, of course, uttered slightly over a half-century ago, but they still have resonance, possibly particularly so in an era of enormous, and growing, government debt fueled by enormous budget deficits that everyone in Washington decries but no one in Washington seems to have any serious interest in reining in. We are all familiar with the laments about current trends in projections, and nothing I can add would do much to improve the general sense of expressed malaise. I can, however, add a dissident perspective on how to approach the problem.

As politicians from both parties have put forward what pass as plans to reduce the deficit, one area that has consistently ignored or underanalyzed is the budget of the U.S. Department of Defense and the other governmental budgets (e.g. Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs) that contribute to expenditures on generic national security. Certainly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (whose tenure will, sadly, end this year) has proposed minor cuts: $78 billion over five years. These cuts, he quickly adds to avoid howls of weakening national security and leaving us at the mercy of our predatory enemies, are not savings, however, but really only ways to shift spending from less to more productive means. Calls for real cuts remain outside the mainstream of discussions.

The exemption of defense cuts from proposals to reduce government spending and thus reduce deficits is notable, since it is hard to conceive how any meaningful deficit reductions can occur without major DOD (and associated agency) reductions, for two reasons. First, the amount of government resources devoted to defense is huge: the base budget for FY 2010 was $533 billion, and when “overseas contingency operations” (OCOs or spending on overseas operations like Afghanistan and Iraq not totally encompassed in the base budget) are included, that number jumps to $664 billion. Requests for FY 2011, on which the Congress has not yet acted, are larger: base budget plus OCOs have a price tag of $721 billion. If one adds all the other budgets that are arguably attached to national security (Homeland Security, Vaterans Affairs, etc.) that number approaches $1 trillion. Add to that the interest on debt accumulation for past defense deficits, and the number is between $1.1 and 1.5 trillion,depending on where borrowed money is accounted). This is not chump change. Second, over half the so-called federal “discretionary budget” that everyone agrees should be the first object of cutting is for defense, and proposals (especially from the GOP) almost uniformly exclude these from the budget cutter’s axe.

These numbers return us to Eisenhower’s contention. Those who defend huge defense budgets generally do so on the basis that they are necessary to keep the country safe from our enemies, and that any large cuts would leave us unacceptably, even unconscionably,vulnerable to the predators out there. Setting aside that these arguments may not stand up to close inspection across the board, they ignore Eisenhower’s entreaty, which suggests, to paraphrase Walt Kelly’s words spoken through Pogo, that he has met the enemy, “and he is us.” The essence of this argument is, I think, that the enormous budgets devoted to defense are actually HURTING national security rather than helping it because of their contribution to the deficit. If you do not believe that defense is making an impact, figures for last year conclude that while defense made up only 19 percent of US government expenditures, it constituted 28 percent of government revenues. The remaining 9 percent, by whatever accounting, is deficit spending.

I have no specific plans for reducing the defense budget, which is beyond my personal area of expertise. I do, however, believe that if the country is serious (and it is not at all clear to me that it is beyond the purely rhetorical level) about returning to an area of fiscal responsibility defined in terms Ike would approve, then Defense must play a meaningful part. Such participation would require some major rethinking of American priorities in such things as the extent and quality of American overseas power projections (English translation: deciding that maybe we can’t afford wars in places like Iraq or Afghanistan): funds for OCOs would almost certainly be a victim. Overseas spending reductions are just an example, of course, if one really questions how the United States spends money on defense. The alternative is to ignore Ike, which is to say to raise the white flag over serious attention to Ike’s advocacy of balanced budgets. At the risk of putting words in the general’s mouth, budgetary restraint may be among the higher forms of patriotism, not unfettered defense spanding. Readers’ views are welcomed!

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